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The DAILY DIRT - The nitty and the gritty of outdoor news

Trip Doctor: How Do I Plan For Thru-Hiking the JMT?

Our resident trip planning expert shares where to camp, how to plan, and other tips for the John Muir Trail.

Q: I’m planning to thru-hike the John Muir Trail this summer. How many days should I plan on, what do I need to know, and where are the best campsites?

A: Thru-hiking the JMT should be on every backpacker’s tick list—its amazing scenery really earns it the nickname “America’s most beautiful trail.” And at 221 miles total—when you include the 10-mile hike off Mt. Whitney’s summit, where the JMT ends (or begins, depending on your perspective)—it can be done in three weeks or less, so you don’t have to quit your job or abandon your family for it.

I took this shot of my friend Todd Arndt above Marie Lake, near Selden Pass:


For some reason, JMT thru-hikers have traditionally hiked south to north—maybe because Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers go in that direction. While it makes sense to go north on the PCT to synchronize with the seasons, I preferred going south on the JMT, from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney, when I did it in 2006: You begin with lower elevations and a lighter pack (thanks to more-frequent resupply opportunities), and you’re acclimated and have your trail legs by the time you hit the higher elevations of the southern Sierra, when you have to carry enough food for half the trail. Plus, what better way to finish than with the summit of Whitney, the highest in the Lower 48?

Going north to south, you’d start at the Happy Isles/JMT Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, which you can reach on the valley’s shuttle bus, or on a 20-minute road walk from Curry Village. You’ll probably want to spend the night before somewhere in Yosemite Valley; options include camping or lodging, and either requires a reservation months in advance. (See the park’s website.) Have a vehicle waiting at your endpoint, the Mt. Whitney Trailhead; to get there, from US 395 in Lone Pine, turn west onto Whitney Portal Road and follow it 13 miles to its end.

My favorite places to camp along the JMT include: the unnamed alpine lake over 10,000 feet in Yosemite’s Lyell Canyon, below Donohue Pass; Lake Virginia and Sallie Keyes Lakes in the John Muir Wilderness; the Evolution Basin, Palisade Lakes, and Rae Lakes in Kings Canyon National Park; and Guitar Lake in Sequoia.

How many days? That’s the hard decision. First, consider that you have three convenient places to resupply, in this order going southbound: Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, Red’s Meadow (760-934-2345,, and Muir Trail Ranch (209-966-3195,, about a mile off the JMT near the trail’s halfway point. If you plan three weeks, as many hikers do—averaging 10.5 miles a day—you’re either carrying an ungainly 10 to 11 days of food leaving Muir Trail Ranch southbound, or spending an extra day walking out to a road and back to resupply somewhere between the ranch and the trail’s end at Whitney Portal.

Some hikers will think 10.5 miles a day is plenty. If you’re carrying a 40-pound pack, that may be as far as you’re able to hike. I suggest considering a two-week trip. Averaging 15 to 16 miles a day may seem a lot, but with some training pre-trip, you’ll get your trail legs for hiking that kind of daily distance within your first few days on the JMT. Plus, you’ll carry less food between resupply points; and with careful attention to minimizing gear weight, you can leave Muir Trail Ranch with a pack weighing between 30 and 35 pounds.

High Sierra afternoons are brutally hot. Start hiking early morning to knock off most of the day’s miles by early afternoon, laze around by a lake with shade through the afternoon heat. And if you’re up for it, hike a couple of hours after dinner, in the cool of evening.

Mosquitoes are thick and voracious and afternoon thunderstorms not uncommon through most of the summer. The best time for a JMT thru-hike is late August through the first half of September, when rain is less common (I had a week of dry weather on the JMT in late August 2006) and cool nights decimate the skeeter population, allowing you to shave significant pack weight by using a tarp instead of a tent. By early autumn, though, snow can start flying.

Be sure to pick up the August issue of BACKPACKER (due out in early July) for my story on Life List trips. It includes thru-hiking the JMT, with tips on planning and keeping your pack light—which is the key component of any long hike. Also, pick up the guidebook John Muir Trail, by Elizabeth Wenk and Kathy Morey ($18, 800-443-7227,, and the John Muir Trail map pack ($21, 415-456-7940, And reserve your permit ASAP through either Yosemite National Park (209-372-0740, or the Inyo National Forest, (760-873-2485,, whenever you plan to start.

—Michael Lanza, Trip Doctor

Michael Lanza is Backpacker’s Northwest Editor. He’s working on a book, “Before They’re Gone,” about spending a year taking his kids to national parks threatened by climate change. It will be published in spring 2012 by Beacon Press (


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Ray Rippel
Jul 08, 2012

Since my posting on May of 2010 I have since wrote a book on this topic. Check it out at Thanks!

Jerr Henderson
May 30, 2010

We would recommend Yosemite Pines as we recently stayed in one of their park model cabins but they also offer rv and camping sites. Yosemite Pines is an RV resort, campground, and lodge located near Yosemite National Park offering <a href="">Yosemite lodging</a> and offers <a href="">Yosemite camping</a> near Yosemite National Park with full hook-up RV and campsites. Yosemite Pines also offers <a href="">Yosemite cabin rentals</a> near Yosemite National Park with basic to luxury cabins. Amenities include a clubhouse, gold mine, gold panning, petting zoo, swimming pool, hiking trail, general store, children’s playground, horseshoe pit, and volleyball.

Ikan Mas
May 28, 2010

Don't plan on doing it too early this year. We've had an above-average winter and a cold spring. Things aren't thawing out too fast here in sunny CA.

May 27, 2010

PS: The lake referred to in the article below Donahue is "High Lake". It is beautiful.

May 27, 2010

I am taking my 5th stroll down the trail this year. You can do it in less than 20 or 21 days, but why? take your time if you have it and enjoy it. It really should not be a race. Some things to know: There will be snow on the passes this year. VVR is beer food and fun but can cost you. It looks like Usacks are okay most everywhere except Yosmite.( Great for carrying extra food) Have enough food after MTR or have some brought to you. Keersarge Pass is a good place for someone to come in. You can contact me as well at for an example of my iteneraries and gear lists. See you on the trail, it is awesome.

May 27, 2010

I am taking my 5th stroll down the trail this year. You can do it in less than 20 or 21 days, but why? take your time if you have it and enjoy it. It really should not be a race. Some things to know: There will be snow on the passes this year. VVR is beer food and fun but can cost you. It looks like Usacks are okay most everywhere except Yosmite.( Great for carrying extra food) Have enough food after MTR or have some brought to you. Keersarge Pass is a good place for someone to come in. You can contact me as well at for an example of my iteneraries and gear lists. See you on the trail, it is awesome.

Val Ross
May 27, 2010

I thru-hiked w/ my 15-yr-old daughter about 8 years ago in August. 19 rain-free and mostly mosquito-free days -- pretty lucky. I highly recommend the north to south direction, and consider the following re-supply points: Tuolomne, Reds, Edison Lake (Each 3 days apart, and the stop at Edison is worth a 1/2 layover day for pancakes and free night's lodging on the 9th day). Since I was traveling with a young teen, we splurged on a re-supply by horse packers from Kings Canyon at Woods Creek Crossing just north of Rae Lakes -- fanastic option, because then we were never carrying more than 7 days of food in our bear cans, and never had to walk out to re-supply. I don't think my pack ever weighed more than 35 pounds full of water (4 qts leaving Edison for a dry morning). Good luck and best wishes for you adventure!

Rebecca Adler
May 27, 2010

Sounds like an amazing hike. I'm planning the PCT for next year. This may be just the hike to tide me over until then (and make sure I can really spend that much time on a trail!). Thanks for the tips!

Ray Rippel
May 26, 2010

Great advice all along. I through-hiked last August/September in 18 walking days (2 rest days) and would be happy to offer advice to anyone. E-mail at ray209 [at] hotmail [dot] com. Put JMT in subject line.


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